'Student power' on display in Putney

Tuesday December 11, 2012

PUTNEY -- Steve Lorenz calls it "student power."

On Monday, the head of The Grammar School in Putney and his pupils showed off a new, 216-panel solar array designed to nullify the school's carbon footprint.

The student-inspired project also caught the attention of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who used the occasion to tout Vermont's role in promoting renewable energy and combating global warming.

"The nation doesn't want to connect the dots. You are connecting the dots," Shumlin said. "That's what this project represents."

Monday's event was a homecoming for Shumlin: He is a Putney native who also is a 1970 graduate of The Grammar School. His mother, one of the school's founders, also was on hand.

Shumlin, a former state lawmaker who last month won a second term as governor, said his alma mater instills in students "the power to be inquisitive and curious" along with motivation to push for social change.

"It instills in you a sense of responsibility for building a better world," he said.

That may be a good description for the efforts of The Grammar School's student council, which initiated a "sustainability initiative" two years ago with a goal of reducing the facility's carbon footprint.

"It was a student-initiated project that took on a life of its own," Lorenz said.

The subsequent year of research included conversations with experts and visits to other solar facilities, including one at the nearby Green Mountain Orchards.

The Grammar School's solar array is the result of a partnership with Soveren, a Westminster company specializing in photovoltaic systems.

The system consists of 36 poles that each support six panels on a hill behind the school. Another six panels near the lower school driveway brings the total power output to more than 54 kilowatts.

The school remains tied to the power grid, as are the new solar panels. But the point is that the array can generate as much power as the school uses.

"It eliminated our carbon footprint," Lorenz said. "This generates all the electricity we would need to power our school."

He added that the deal with Soveren is important, since the company installed and owns the solar equipment.

Because the school is a nonprofit, it cannot take direct advantage of governmental tax credits associated with generating renewable energy. But Soveren can.

The Grammar School has a future option to buy the solar facility at a reduced price made possible by Soveren's taking advantage of the tax benefits in the meantime.

Josh Hilsdon, a Sovern representative, said the project is an example of solar power's possibilities.

"For us, it's a feel-good project," Hilsdon said. "We really like the idea of solar at an educational institution."

Lorenz said the solar facility, along with the topic of renewable energy, has become part of The Grammar School's curriculum.

And Shumlin spent part of his visit telling staff and students that the country must wean itself from greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels such as oil and coal.

"The most important challenge that we face as a human race is climate change, bar none," he said.

Before departing, the governor was presented with gifts including a Grammar School-themed mug and T-shirt. He also took time to answer a few questions from students and others in the crowd:

-- Asked what his job was like, Shumlin said it is "the best job in the world" but is a hectic, seven-day-a-week undertaking.

"When my mom says I'm getting wrinkled and old and gray, it's from worrying," he said.

-- When Shumlin said Calvin Coolidge was the lone U.S. president from Vermont, a student corrected him: Chester Arthur was born in Vermont, but his family moved to New York when he was a child.

-- In response to a question about President Barack Obama, the newly elected head of the Democratic Governors Association couldn't resist taking a shot at the GOP.

"President Obama is the smartest president we've had in a long time," Shumlin said. "Of course, after George W. Bush, that's not saying much."

-- With Shumlin planning a trip to Rome, he was asked whether he'd be meeting the pope.

"Ever since I became a national advocate for marriage equality, the pope hasn't been calling me," he said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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